Isabel ★★★★

We first encounter Isabel in dark silhouette, framed against the snowbound scenery of a train window, and in an accompanying clatter of railway sounds and visual cuts, we find ourselves drawn intimately into her world. Isabel is intriguing from the off, an apparent ingénue with the wide brown eyes of a spooked animal, but also something else: a woman; cautious, curious, determined. We soon come to discover the territory she is navigating is recognisable but at the same time quite foreign - the uncertain terrain of her family’s past.

Travelling home to the wintry Gaspé countryside after the death of her mother, Isabel comes to stands as a cypher of many more contrasts: modernity against tradition; youth against age; spring against winter; life against death. In only one area does her quest fall down - in establishing some version of truth in a fog of misrememberings and doubts. In most ghost stories we’re expected to believe in a real manifestation of danger, a spectral presence taking shape before our eyes, but in ‘Isabel’ the journey instead is into the elusive ghosts of our own pasts and memories. Despite the very real faces and figures that appear at moments in the film, at no point do you feel something tangible is going to jump out and say ‘boo!’. Isabel carries her scars and ghosts within her: they manifest in the wizened features of family and locals, in the photographs of her dead relatives, but most of all in the backward attitudes and lives of those of the countryside she thought she’d left behind. She’s searching for an exit, at each turn finding only foxholes back into her past.

Almond establishes an intimacy with Geneviève Bujold that you can imagine is by virtue of their marriage: she’s comfortable under his lens, allowing it explore her features in close up much as Isabel looks to explore her own inner world against a familiar, but alien, backdrop. And it’s impossible to look away from Bujold. When she dips hear head and looks upwards her eyes take on an extraordinary shape: her profile, recognisable from the poster, is at once that of innocent boy-child and sixties elfin model. Only at the third time of watching did I notice how starkly she is made up against the rough-hewn, lived-in faces of those around her. That Almond employs real residents of the community the film is set in adds a touch of verité that makes the contrast all the more telling: the accents are slightly crooked, lines delivered at cross-purposes. All of that, and the brutality of the frozen (albeit thawing) Gaspé landscape, only reiterate Bujold’s ability to float up and out of the cold, hard backdrop of the film. She is the warmth that keeps you watching.

As for plot, it runs a little behind and below but it is buried within. On returning to the harsh farmland of her youth, Isabel tries to bring some big-city logic to tie up loose ends, helping her uncle Matthew get the family farm back in order. That she comes adrift from the urban life she’s visiting from, at the same time getting lost amongst the mysteries and portraits of dead ancestors and siblings, is mostly discernible. Beyond this there’s no certain outcome. Clearly love-interest Jason, the most practical and dependable male figure of the piece, represents the one thing that can save Isabel from being swallowed up altogether by both landscape and past. Why it is he so obviously embodies both her dead brother and grandfather is a little more obscure, although I put it down to an early version of what Alex Garland does in ‘Men’: the dangers and comforts represented around us take on similar, repeating patterns. Our futures repeat our pasts.

What always keeps me enthralled is the atmosphere, the way you have to watch Bujold in the frame, the uncertainties that lie between her and the edge of the lens. There’s no way she can overcome her past, but she doesn’t belong in it either. The slightly incongruous sound effects, the odd noises of bombs and explosions and the chiming of the clock, all contribute to this sense of a woman out of place, inviting you to help her escape. I don’t know if Isabel can climb out of the frame and save herself, if Jason is even capable of helping her (after all, Jason is entirely rooted to the farmland, he would make no sense outside of it), but I’ll want to watch her try, over and again.

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